Yusei Kikuchi

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Yusei Kikuchi (菊池 雄星)

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Biographical Information[edit]

Yusei Kikuchi drew notice in 2009 when he was timed at 96 mph during the Koshien Tournament, a new record for a left-hander since the event began using the radar gun in 1980. He met with 8 major league teams and all 12 Nippon Pro Baseball clubs that winter, then decided to remain in Japan to begin his professional career. Six of the 12 NPB clubs named him #1 overall in the draft that year; the Seibu Lions won his rights. He debuted with the big club on June 12, 2011 with a rocky outing against the Hanshin Tigers (6 H, 4 ER in 2 1/3 IP). For the year, he went 4-1 with a 4.14 ERA for Seibu.

On November 5, 2018, Seibu announced its intention to place him on the posting system, with the 30-day period starting a month later, on December 5th. Late on December 31st, it was reported that he had agreed to a four-year deal with the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners had been proceeding with a fire sale during the off-season, trading away pricey veterans, but Kikuchi was seen as one of the younger players around whom the team planned to build for the future. They had of course a long history of having Japanese players be successful for them. A couple of days later, figures were released for the deal: it was worth $56 million for four years with a club option to extend it to seven years for a total of $109 million. This included a signing bonus of $6 million. As a result, the posting fee to be paid to Seibu by Seattle amounted to $10.275 million. On March 21, 2019, he became the first Japanese player to make his major league debut in Japan when he started the second contest of a season-opening two-game series against the Oakland Athletics at the Tokyo Dome. He gave up 1 run on 4 hits in 4 2/3 innings before giving way to Roenis Elias. The Mariners then indicated that they had devised a special plan to keep Kikuchi's innings down his first season: every fifth start or so, he would only the team's "opener", turning the ball over to a young pitcher called up from the minors after pitching the 1st inning. After struggling to a 5.56 ERA by mid-August, he had a tremendous outing on August 18th, when he pitched the first complete game and shutout of his career in defeating the Toronto Blue Jays, 7-0, on a two-hitter. He ended his rookie season at 6-11, 5.46 in 32 games, pitching 161 2/3 innings.

In 2020, he was limited to 9 starts by the shortened season resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. He lowered his ERA slightly, to 5.17 and his record was 2-4. One major improvement was in his strikeout rate, which rose from 116 in 161 2/3 innings, to 47 in 47 innings; his hit rate also improved significantly, from 10.9 per 9 innings to 7.9. On April 29, 2021, he flirted with a no-hitter in a start against the Houston Astros. He did not allow a hit until one out in the 7th, then completed the frame without further damage before leaving, on his way to a 1-0 win. This was the initial chapter of an excellent first half that saw him be invited to the All-Star Game for the first time. He went 7-9, 4.41 in 29 starts for the season, with 163 strikeouts in 157 innings, but his two halves were very different: 6-4, 3.48 before the break, and 1-5, 5.98 afterwards. This was especially problematic as the Mariners were in the running for a postseason spot until the last day of the season, but he contributed almost nothing down the stretch.

He became a free agent after the 2021 season, but was still unsigned when the lockout began. Only a couple of days after it was resolved, on March 12, 2022, news emerged that he had found a suitor, the Toronto Blue Jays, who were willing to bet $36 million over three years that the first-half Kikuchi was the real deal, and not the second-half one. Well, the Blue Jays got both: in April, he was terrible, going 0-1, 5.52 in 4 starts, then turned things completely around in May with a record of 2-0, 2.36 in 5 starts. But just when it looked like he had things under control, he collapsed completely in June, when he was 0-3, 9.39 in 5 starts. He failed to complete the 5th inning in any of these five starts, continually putting the bullpen under pressure. After giving up 5 runs in just 2 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers on June 25th, speculation was that he would not make his next start and would need to right himself while pitching in long relief for a spell. But he did make his next start on June 30th and, lo and behold, he was excellent, allowing just 1 run in 6 innings while striking out 8 against the Tampa Bay Rays. However, his improvement was short-lived. He was awful in the middle stretch of the season, putting up ERAs of 7.17, 6.14 and 7.27 from June to August. He made his last start on August 15th and pitched strictly in relief after that. At first, he was only used in low-leverage situations, but he did better as a reliever, going 2-0 with a 4.50 ERA in 8 September outings and even picking up his first career save on September 30th, pitching the final 3 innings of a 9-0 win over the Boston Red Sox. He finished the year at 6-7, 5.19 with the 1 save, with 124 strikeouts in 100 2/3 innings, but also 58 walks. He did not appear in the postseason.

Heading into 2023, the Blue Jays weren't sure what to expect from Kikuchi: the stuff was there, as reflected by his strikeout rate the previous season, but not the results. He surprised everyone with an excellent spring, putting up an ERA of 1.00 through his first six Grapefruit League starts and confirming that he would be the team's fifth starter at the start of the regular season. He had a very good season, never having to relinquish his job as the team's fifth starter. He completed the year with an important win over the Tampa Bay Rays on September 29th in which he pitched 5 innings in an 11-4 win that put Toronto within a hair's breadth of the postseason with two games remaining. For the season, he went 11-6, 3.86 in 32 games, setting personal bests for wins, innings pitched (167 2/3) and strikeouts (181). Even though he pitched 67 more innings than in 2022, he allowed 10 fewer walks, 48 to 58, in what was a key to his improvement. In the postseason, it was at the center of a controversial move by manager John Schneider in Game 2 of the Wild Card Series against the Minnesota Twins on October 4th. José Berríos had started the game, and was cruising along, having allowed no runs during the first three innings when he walked the lead-off batter in the 4th, Royce Lewis, who had been the Twins most dangerous hitter thus far. That's when Schneider brought in Kikuchi, hoping to catch the Twins wrong-footed as their line-up was lefthanded-heavy. However, Kikuchi had not pitched out of the bullpen all season, and it took him a few batters to find his groove, by which time Max Kepler had singled, Donovan Solano had drawn a walk to load the bases, and Carlos Correa singled to drive in a first run. Kikuchi then got Willi Castro to ground into a double play, but Kepler scored on the play. Those two runs were all that Minnesota needed, as they won the game, 2-0. The move was widely panned after the game.

Notable Achievements[edit]

  • AL All-Star (2021)

Further Reading[edit]

  • David Adler: "Star Japanese lefty eyes signing with MLB club: Kikuchi, 27, in line to be posted by Seibu Lions", mlb.com, November 5, 2018. [1].
  • David Adler: "All you need to know about Yusei Kikuchi: MLB teams will soon bid on the Japanese left-hander", mlb.com, December 1, 2018. [2]
  • Nick Ashbourne: "Yusei Kikuchi could be a brilliant addition or foolish gamble for Blue Jays", Yahoo! Sports, March 12, 2022. [3]
  • Nick Ashbourne: "Blue Jays' Yusei Kikuchi shattering expectations as improved command drives hot steak (sic): Yusei Kikuchi is putting together a season that's defying all reasonable expectations — and he's building momentum.", Yahoo! Sports Canada, August 9, 2023. [4]
  • Greg Johns: "Source: Kikuchi agrees to a deal with Mariners", mlb.com, January 1, 2019. [5]
  • Greg Johns: "Kikuchi adjusting to life in the big leagues: Japanese southpaw makes mound debut at Mariners camp", mlb.com, February 13, 2019. [6]
  • Greg Johns: "Mariners reinvent strategy to keep Kikuchi fresh: Rookie will serve as an opener, pitching 1 inning every 5th start or so", mlb.com, March 24, 2019. [7]
  • Dawn Kiemish: "Kikuchi (9 strikeouts) full-speed ahead as season looms", mlb.com, March 23, 2023. [8]
  • Keegan Matheson: "Blue Jays reach 3-year deal with lefty Kikuchi (source)", mlb.com, March 12, 2022. [9]
  • Keegan Matheson: "After career-best '23, expectations higher for Kikuchi in '24", mlb.com, March 30, 2024. [10]

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